Taha Hashim reports on Ollie Pope’s comeback 81 at The Oval on day two of the fourth Test with India.
The morning should be India’s. England are 78-5, trailing by 113 runs, and Ollie Pope has 15 off 34. This isn’t anything new for the right-hander – his last six Test knocks have all seen him reach 15. The problem, however, is that he can’t seem to land any more punches off the middle. His highest score from those six innings – dating back to the final Test of a miserable tour of India earlier this year – is 29.
And then, from slightly out of nowhere, Pope finds it all: the straight drive that flies past mid-on; the clip that’s all about the wrists; the pull shot that rounds off a 16-run Shardul Thakur over. Suddenly it dawns on you that this is Ollie Pope at The Oval, his manor. Before today, this is where he’d hit 1,410 first-class runs at an average of 100.71. This is where he’d earned his reputation as one of the best young batsmen in England and, believe it or not, this is where he still hadn’t played a Test innings.
From the other end Jonny Bairstow begins to click and, in this series of dramatic shifts, we find ourselves in the midst of another thanks to England’s highest sixth-wicket stand of the year. Together they put on 77 before lunch and while Bairstow can’t handle the Mohammed Siraj nip-backer, Moeen Ali beds in for another important stand. England’s new vice-captain begins to show off his strokes – Umesh Yadav falls victim to a delicious backfoot drive through the covers – and Pope just keeps ticking over, quietly accumulating in a way he hasn’t done for quite some time. The 23-year-old’s half-century is his first in Test cricket since the series opener against Pakistan last summer.
Moeen goes for the big shot and falls, but it seems Pope will carry through and knock it about to have his fairytale day: a first Test century in England and that too at his home ground; an innings that could decide both the match and the series. Instead the dream dies against a rather innocuous delivery as Pope drags a Thakur delivery onto his stumps. He falls 19 runs short and smacks the pads with his bat to let the world know of his agony. A grand opportunity – to be England’s first centurion in the series not called Joe Root – is spurned.
Yet this was still an innings Pope needed. Through misfortune, bunsens and a battle to get past the skittish starts, the Surrey batsman was struggling at Test level. Surgery after a shoulder injury last year meant he missed the two Tests against Sri Lanka at the start of 2021 and, like most of his teammates, the turning ball did for him in India. When the summer rolled around, he found form in the County Championship but his guard on off stump caught the attention of critics. “When the ball is swinging and nipping around, then you’ve almost got to try and cover one side of your bat,” Pope told Wisden Cricket Monthly earlier this summer as he publicly backed his own methods.
After 84 runs in four innings against New Zealand, a thigh injury derailed his prep for the ongoing series and it wasn’t till this Test, after Jos Buttler departed for paternity leave, that England rediscovered room for a batsman who seemed to have all the answers when he finished unbeaten on 135 against South Africa last January in Port Elizabeth.
Pope hasn’t reached those highs since, but this 81 may well be a turning point. It was noticeable that his off stump was more visible today than it had been against New Zealand, which shows that he is willing to adapt. “Standing on middle stump for this kind of attack is, I think, a good option,” Pope told Sky after play. “They target that knee roll. They try and hit the stumps and bring that into play as much as they can.”
He found love from familiar surroundings, with the crowd rising to applaud the local boy when he did eventually trudge off. He’s played dreamier knocks in south London and put up far bigger scores – his red-ball average at the ground fell after today’s exploits – but never has he had to bat here with so many eyes on him. He found a way when the scoreboard didn’t look pretty and when he treated Thakur to three boundaries in one over, he really did look at home.